What do black/death metal band Book of Belial and Kim Kardashian have in common? Aside from a desire to spread evil and darkness, the answer is that both have had their names immortalised by the iconic logo designer Christophe Szpajdel. Although inextricably linked to the extreme metal underground by his classic works for a vast array of bands, Szpajdel is first and foremost a great artist and designer and his work now has an audience far beyond the metal subculture to which he still undeniably belongs.
Szpajdel has been drawing bespoke logos since 1987, his big break coming in the early 90s with the classic and hugely influential logo for Norwegian black metal legends Emperor. Since then his work has helped to define the aesthetic style of underground metal, but also become well-known in its own right, being featured in exhibitions and books, including his own volume, Lord of the Logos.
It’s typical of the UK that, despite being based in Exeter (and having been a UK resident for the past fifteen years), Szpajdel’s work receives far greater acclaim and coverage elsewhere in the world; a real shame, and a situation which will hopefully be remedied as his reputation continues to expand both within and outside of the metal realm.
In conversation, Christophe is funny and informative and has a passion for drawing and, especially, logo design (his own and that of others) which shines through everything he says. It’s worth pointing out too, that in a time when useable graphics have arguably never been easier to come by, he remains committed to the art of imaginative, hand-drawn, pencil and ink images; unique works which have the feel that only comes from manual labour and contemplation.
Anyway, enough introduction; here’s the man himself – What are you looking forward to in 2016?
CS: This year I have lined up a few exhibitions, I have a possible show in Manchester for March-April at the Gallery Grim and another possibly in London. But I have had quite a long list of exhibitions in the past, so what is more exciting to look forward to is in June, when I have my first proper workshop, which is going to happen in Vancouver, Canada. That workshop is going to be together with [photographer] Peter Beste. This is something really to look forward to. I had a talk earlier today about an exhibition in Romania, in the Carpathian mountains. Last year I had a very successful last-minute impromptu exhibition in Japan. I’m actually looking forward to having a much bigger exhibition there, because that last exhibition became something of a timebomb. It filled the venue, they literally squeezed in, and I had three hours of non-stop autographs. All these Japanese people were taking selfies with me, which is something I have never seen like this before. In the UK, selfies are a big habit; in Japan, selfies are an absolute obsession. It’s the same with queuing. Here in the UK, everyone is used to queuing, the Japanese have turned queuing into an art form. So last year was a giant leap in my artistic career.”
As mentioned in my intro, Christophe’s name is known worldwide in metal circles, but although his love for and knowledge of metal music is obvious, his real passion is for designing logos, not simply recycling past glories.
CS: Yes, there is always metal, but this year I have made a new experience, I have done some pop culture logos. I drew for Calvin Harris and Bruno Mars, and Kim Kardashian, and Katie Price, Wayne Rooney (laughs). Also Maverick Sabre – you know; really popular artists, because I have the will to have my work exposed to a much bigger public. And at the moment I’ve been thinking about, just for fun, working on a Beyoncé logo, because she is so much talked about. So there’s this whole series of pop culture logos, I did EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Shortland Street. So I had some real fun exploring the mainstream. But the metal public is always the most receptive to my work. It’s my public, it’s the one who collects my work. A lot of people who see my work who haven’t been acquainted with the metal scene say that it’s not something they would be going for. Or that it’s nice but it’s grim.
There was a time when the extreme metal underground was essentially a DIY business at all levels, but its growth, aided by that of the internet over the last two decades has taken your local extreme band from demos, fanzines and tape trading, to small indie labels, to world tours and ‘Norwegian Grammys’, with the concomitant rise of the oxymoron that is ‘big’ underground bands. No genre demonstrates this better than black metal; and it should be noted that the high profile black metal image that has evolved is in part due to the instantly recognisable work of Christophe Szpajdel himself. Classic 90s logos like his ones for Emperor and Moonspell set a style which is still widely imitated 30 years on.
As the world has changed, Szpajdel has changed with it, but although he puts in full-time hours designing logos, he still doesn’t rely on his art for his income, which means his work is, by the standard of graphic designers with his profile and pedigree, almost ludicrously inexpensive.
CS: “The cost varies, but really I am aiming for a fee of one hundred US dollars. Anybody who contacts me first must be prepared to pay my fee. This year I am also looking to introduce an hourly rate. I discussed this with some artists in Devon who saw my work, and they told me ‘you really need to concentrate on a contract. Send the client a contract that stipulates that there is $100 initial fee for the first draft; but the first draft includes a finalised logo. If they then want further drafts then you absolutely need to introduce an hourly rate.’ So I am working out those details soon.
Bands who contact me now for a logo for free, I say ‘if you want a logo then I want to see the 50% deposit. And when I see the deposit in my PayPal account I will then start working on the logos. If I don’t have the deposit then I’m not going to make a move.’
So is the logo done just for fun, or out of enthusiasm for the subject now a thing of the past?
CS: No, because times like now [January], when it’s been quite quiet over the festive period so, I sometimes just dish out a logo to someone, to people who support my work, just to experiment and to exercise my freedom. There’s a woman called Natalie Corless who has posted a lot on my Facebook wall that she likes my logos so I did her an impromptu logo and she loved it. And so she posted and promoted my album on her timeline and she got me some clients! And this was a person who randomly added me on Facebook. And at the end of the day, she liked my work and she got me five clients, who paid $100 each. So these kind of random people who add me on facebook, they’re not as random as you might think.
Do you forsee a time when you will live from just doing your artwork?
CS: Well, I would love to. But since I’ve started charging professionally, I have observed a steep drop of the amount of clients who commission a logo from me. There are lots of other artists, for example Chris Horst, or Gragoth from Luciferium War Graphics. They offer packages. Chris Horst for example specialises in logos, but for $50 he does logos that include drafts, revisions, work on the computer, digitised, vectorised, coloured, all that; for just $50. Gragoth from Luciferium War Graphics, he is offering for $300, a complete package. Like it has album covers, banners, ad banners, website, myspace layouts, reverb nation layouts, logo, all inclusive for $300. And he is having a lot of success.
But my work’s selling point is it is unique; it is absolutely handmade. I work in collaboration with some graphic designers to digitise my logos. Because now that I charge $100, my clients expect work exactly, precisely, rigorously, to their expectations. They expect the logo to be vectorised, digitised, they expect it in different formats; .PNG, .AI, Vector file, .RAR, .PDF, .GIF files, all the different formats.”
One would think that, as Christophe is now (and has been since the 90s) a well-known name, that bands would request a logo in his trademark style (or one of them), but surprisingly this isn’t always the case…
CS: When I used to do logos in my own style they all got rejected. Now I listen to what the clients want. When they pay the deposit I would like the band to discuss exactly what they are looking for. And actually I want them to send me examples by other artists and not mine, so I can avoid repeating myself. I’m also in very close contact and have been doing quite a lot of collaborative works with a guy called Raoul Mazzero from Italy. He is an absolute genius. He actually helped me how to create outstanding logos, and how to solve the symmetry problems. He’s been a huge help, and we’re looking at a possible Italian show too.”
Is symmetry something you aim for in general?
CS: I actually have an automatic impulse to create symmetrical logos, but I have also done quite a lot of asymmetrical logos. But symmetrical logos are just natural to me. I find a symmetrical logo to be more outstanding, and to be more balanced.
So what is a good logo to you?
CS: I think the readability of a logo is essential. A logo has to be readable, even in a small format. And I try to convince my clients and my customers that a logo needs to be readable. Not to be overly decorated, especially if it is going to be displayed very small on a poster or on the corner of a CD. On most of the logos I produce I am aiming for readability. And if the client wants a completely unreadable logo I am simply saying ‘why don’t we opt for several designs? Why don’t we think about doing a logo which is made of letters only, which is readable and then a more limited logo for t-shirts that can go more unreadable?'”
Do you have any interest in doing cover designs etc as well as the logos?
CS: No. I’ve tried to do it and it doesn’t really come well. I found out that doing album covers is not my speciality. However, I did work last year on a mural in Exeter. This is something I wanted to experience. I love working outside, especially in the summer months. In the winter, I essentially work in my studio. But in the summer I’m working a lot outside.
The mural is a rare Christophe Szpajdel work, not only because of the scale, but the use of colour.
CS: “In my logos I do everything in black and white. However, there are a few exceptions. For the 2014 Remembrance Day I did a logo with red poppies on it. [since this interview took place, Christophe also designed the beautiful memorial logo for David Bowie below also) Sometimes I like to share my thoughts through an artwork, like a logo. I find that logos come to me a lot better, it’s my vocation as an artist. I find that I prefer to put my hand into one pot, rather than to try to put my hand into a lot of pots.”
Although Christophe is known for his black and death metal logos, it would be a mistake to regard these as being in one single style; beginning in the 90s with the bold, spiky logos such as the classic designs for Emperor et al, but he also pioneered the naturalistic, organic, ‘spreading roots’ style logos now extremely widespread in the genre (I have chosen his logo for Grim as both a perfect example and a personal favourite) and latterly has turned to increasingly bold, primitive designs.
CS: “I like to do Art Nouveau logos, Art Nouveau logos give fantastic ways for using the space, using space between the letters, rather than pure black metal old school logos, which generally look crumpled. And I think that these usual kinds of logos actually reduce the chance for a band to become well known. Sometimes it’s an ultra-radical kind of orthodox black metal band who wants only to release ten copies of their demo or something, but unfortunately I prefer a logo to be standing out, to be readable. It has to be readable at first sight, but at the same time it has to be outstanding. it has to be kick-ass and memorable, not just a bunch of letters put together, but a logo.
Is creating a simple logo easier or more difficult than complicated one?
CS: “When it’s a complicated and sophisticated logo I mostly get it right the first time. If it’s a simple logo, that is where the client will challenge me. Because in a simple logo, that’s when any imperfection will be seen. And the client will be the first to see it. And this is what I really love; logos to be incredibly easy to recognise straight ahead. [note; the logos Christophe lists here are not his own designs] Think about Gojira; I love that logo. It’s simple, it’s clear, and even if you see it very small, you recognise straight away; that is Gojira and no other band. Think about a band like Tool. They have a perfect logo because it stands out, it’s unique, and it’s appropriate. Or logos like Anthrax; it’s modern, it’s thrash, it’s simple, it’s distinctive, it’s unique. Same, think about the logo of Helloween; or the logo of Malice. Think about Bathory!”
Or indeed Emperor…
CS: “You see, when I did Emperor, they had a sort of logo they used with upside down crosses, and it was too black metal, I thought they needed something simple, and imperious. And I got it right first time. You know, you throw your first dart and you get it right in the centre of the target. Bam! Like that. It’s a logo which is at the same time simple, distinctive, useable in any size, which works in any size and format.”
And of course you now have your own logo…
CS: “Yes, I have the Lord of the Logos, which is my trademark, which is my book.”
It’s a beautiful book, have you plans for more?
CS: “Well, Lord of the Logos, is still available, it’s still sellng. I’m looking to release a second volume, which has a working title of Ancient Modernism later this year. The title comes from a whole concept I’ve developed . The concept in the new logos is a real travel through time and dimension. So there is a timeline, beginning with really primitive logos I have created. A band called Gau, which means ‘night’ in Basque, this logo is very prehistoric, almost as if it was drawn by dinosaurs. With these very prehistoric plants around, no crows, no wolves. Very prehistoric, almost reptilian, taken from a time there was no mammals, no birds, there were just reptiles and primitive insects; trilobites, and ammonites. And in fact I live in Exeter, by the Jurassic coast, so you can send yourself spinning on a time travel of 200 millions years. So we go from these very simplistic logos, like Undo Creation from Georgia, up to the most sophisticated logos; art deco, or futuristic logos, like I did for Outsider Industries. Or Haunted, an Italian project.
It seems like, although drawing logos still isn’t your ‘day job’, it’s definitely your main focus…
C.S: “I’m trying to keep myself at the age of 45, forever doing logos. The main reason is being single; all the time being single, so I can concentrate 100% on my logos because this is what gives me happiness. I have never been married, never had children; my first child is that book, Lord of the Logos. And that child is growing all the time, it has been in many hands, and it’s being appreciated by people who have never been listening to metal. Lord of the Logos is really only focussing on what inspires me; it’s photographs and logos. And there are some medieval aspects, but mostly it’s nature. All the photos have been taken by myself, and the logos are all my own work and it reflects the places that have inspired me. It includes many parts of Devon, Dartmoor, Southampton, Oregon, California, south of France, Belgium. Quite a lot of places that I have visited. And last year there was also the release of the compendium, Logos from Hell by Mark Riddick, and I’ve got something like 200 of my works in there; no other artist had 200 logos collected in one compendium book. The book is very heavy.
Collecting works into books creates a great reference work for graphic artists, but does it inspire you to look back at your old stuff?
CS: “I have been at the moment making a complete retrospective and over the next while… I have been looking to post on Facebook for the first time logos that I did from 1992 to 1999. So a real retrospective that includes some logos like a band called Eternity of Darkness that I did in 1992, something like that; that was a UK band. And Stone Circle. We’re talking about very, very old stuff from the 90s…
What were the logos that first got your attention? In the 70s there were some classics like Kiss…
Yeah; the original [Paul Stanley designed] Kiss logo with the SS style lettering; it’s just exactly the kind of logo that got me as a kid. I started listening to Kiss in 1977. I also loved bands like The Cure. I remember going to see them when I was 12 and it was like going to enter a completely forbidden country. When I went in ’82 it was all the ‘post-punks’ but when I saw them again in ’87, that was the time of all the Goths. There were just loads of Goths; the people you just couldn’t see in the daytime. You just couldn’t see these people outside of some special place like Camden. In Camden you could see all these illuminated people with a vivid imagination; and I am one of them, I definitely consider myself as an illuminated eccentric with a vivid imagination.
At this point do you have any idea how many logos you’ve done?
It would be easily a good ten thousand. And there are quite a lot of logos that I unfortunately parted with the originals. Because in many cases I’d be drawing on the go and just hand the drawings over to the client. Like a band from Italy called Deathraid, who were a little bit in the vein of the oh-so-legendary Necrodeath…
…brief interlude as we discuss Necrodeath’s Into the Macabre and Christophe reveals that, however wide his tastes and artistic ambitions, his roots are most definitely in the underground metal scene of his youth:
CS: “Into the Macabre very memorable, it’s very simplistic, its raw. It’s got that vibe. The songs are just basically keeping you on your toes. It’s a great blend of thrash, speed metal with that slight black metal edge, but at the same time it’s very insane, it’s very haunting. It’s the kind of album if you hear it once you will remember it for the rest of your life.”
Well, it was recorded before all the genre boundaries were really established…
CS: “Yes, it was just straight from hell metal. And that was what I adored.”
Last year, Christophe’s iconic Emperor logo became, for the first time, a source of something other than pride, when it became the basis for some joke Christmas jumper designs posted online by the Foo Fighters; which still rankles, evidently…
CS: That drove me absolutely ballistic. And I could have sued them, but I had a much nicer idea. I came up with a Foo Fighters logo designed by myself, which has a black metal vibe, but with the FF of Foo Fighters and elements of the Foo Fighters logo but had a black metal, but still readable, Emperor-esque inspiration, without being a barbaric cut-paste like this pathetic Foo Fighters Emperor-esque logo which had been done on a computer.
A lot of people brought it to my attention and there was much going on on my Facebook wall that I finally said I’m gonna ram it down and post the logo. This is how the Foo Fighters logo should be! Woe to the guy who ripped off my Emperor logo and made a right pig’s ear out of it! Of course I had some people who told me I should be honoured. Well! Honoured of having my art being disfigured, desecrated, stolen and mistreated like that? Bollocks. If they really wanted to have an Emperor tribute logo they would have contacted me! They wouldn’t have contacted a lousy, so-called graphic designer, who made this terrible pig’s ear out of it, and on this awful, terrible, shameful Christmas jumper!
So what is the legal situation with the Emperor logo? Do you have any rights or does the band just own it?
I still have the right to exhibit. I had a massive exhibition; last year started great. I had the Marks of Metal exhibition in Odense in Denmark. There was an encounter between me, who did the Emperor logo and Kristian Wåhlin, Necrolord, who did the Emperor album cover. We actually brought the actual works, and we were there with the works together, making the same kind of statements. We both did these works when we were just Emperor fans, when we were young. I was exactly twenty when I did the Emperor logos, I was still doing my studies and I did it as kind of a hobby. When I did that logo in January 1991, during my first year winter exams, I would never imagine that Emperor would become so big. It wasn’t until 1994 and In the Nightside Eclipse that my name became big. That was when my name spread in the underground and became known among the metallers.
How do you feel about that logo now? Do you still like it?
Yes, I love it still. It’s become one of the timeless classics. Think about Motorhead, think about Iron Maiden, think about Abba! Tom Jones, he’s still going on. The Foundations; Build Me Up Buttercup. These are artists and songs I loved and still love. Think of Elvis Presley; these are timeless classics and the Emperor logo is one of those classics. And it’s one of the few logos that is still unaltered after 30 years. And when people meet me they say ‘you’re the Emperor logo guy!’ Of course there lots of other bands from the 90s whose logos I did; but Emperor is the one that stands out.
Do you feel your focus as an artist has changed much since 1991?
CS: “Well, in the 90s I wouldn’t say that I wanted only true black metal exclusively, but there was no way on earth that I would have been doing the logos for Kim Kardashian and people like that… I do wonder where those will take me…